“The steal of the draft.”
“An electrifying talent.”
These are the things experts said about Eeli Tolvanen either before or during the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago, Illinois. Despite most publications slotting him in the teen’s, he somehow fell to the Nashville Predators at 30th overall.
“We were very surprised that he was there,” Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty said during our live radio coverage from the draft floor. “We did not anticipate that happening, quite honestly.”
Preds General Manager David Poile agreed.
“He’s a player we’ve had in our top 10 all year long,” he said that weekend. “In our minds, we got very fortunate, being the 30th pick. I’ve looked at a lot of other lists that have come out and nobody ever had him lower than 20th.”
Fast forward a few months and Tolvanen is dominating the Kontinental Hockey League as an 18-year old. His eight goals are tied for seventh in the entire KHL and his 14 points are the best on his Jokerit club. If that wasn’t enough, in his first ever KHL game, he became the youngest player in KHL history to register a hat trick.
Oh, and he’s done it twice now.
“Nashville will have a great player in the future,” Jari Kurri, the General Manager of Jokerit, said via phone in an exclusive interview with TheGameNashville.com. “He’s been surprising a lot of people. The way he’s shooting the puck – I think we all knew he could do that – but, overall, he has other skills. He can set up the play, he’s a good power play guy, he can run the power play, he thinks the right way and things like that.”
Kurri would know how to recognize an offensive dynamo when he sees one. He’s a Hockey Hall of Famer, potted 601 goals, tallied 1,398 points, was named one of the 100 best players in NHL history and won five Stanley Cups.
“He’s the type of player who likes to get open,” Kurri said. “He’s always trying to find the places he can shoot from. He’s the type of player that can shoot from different angles too.”
Antti Pihlstrom, a former Nashville Predators and Milwaukee Admirals forward, knows first-hand what Tolvanen’s all about. After all, he gets to see him up close and personal every day. They’re teammates over in Helsinki and have helped lead Jokerit to a 8-1-2-1 (W-L-OTW-OTL) record, good for second in the Bobrov Division.
“I didn’t know if he was ready for the men’s game but he showed right away that he was,” Pihlstrom said. “His biggest thing is his shot. It’s really good and he’s really dangerous when he gets it off.”
For a Nashville organization that’s always been known for churning out franchise defensemen, somehow, they always seem to miss on drafting and developing pure offensive talent. So, with Tolvanen in the fold, it’s nice to know they have someone with that potential in the pipeline.
“It’s hard to score goals in any league,” Kealty said. “So, when you see the talent of a player who can change the game on one shot like that, it’s pretty exciting to know that you have a guy like that coming.”
You know who else (apparently) doesn’t see him coming? Goaltenders.
“You don’t know when he’s going to shoot,” Pihlstrom said. “He can hold it, he can fake it and then he snaps it. He’s really fast when he’s shooting. He can take it and do some different things so that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed in my short time with him so far.”
This potential isn’t coming out of nowhere, of course. Kealty and the Preds knew Tolvanen had this potential when they raced to the podium to take him this past June. Now whether they thought he would be this good this soon? That’s another story.
“To say he was going to be over a point-per-game, I don’t think we would’ve said that,” Kealty laughed. “But I think we felt like the foundation was in place for him to produce. I don’t think we would’ve been predicting he was going to score quite this much but, with his skill set, his shot, his ability to execute and his offensive instincts, I think we were pretty confident he was going to have a good level of production.”
A great level so far. Tolvanen has registered at least one shot on goal in every one of his 12 outings, he’s sixth in shots throughout the entire league (54) and has come away with at least one point in exactly half of the games he’s played in.
“We have to remember he’s only 18 years old,” Kurri said. “He hasn’t played this level of hockey before but we’re very happy.”
Typically, a concern with drafted Europeans is the transition to the smaller ice surface. In Tolvanen’s case, this is a non-issue since he actually spent the previous two years with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL.
“In Finland, Sweden and Russia, it’s getting more like the NHL and AHL anyway,” Pihlstrom said, who’s played in both hemispheres. “It used to be we were always passing backward and going slow but now all the leagues are moving toward playing harder and going to the net, shooting more and not going backward.”
After his plans to attend Boston College didn’t work out, he chose not to go the Canadian Major Junior route nor spend a season in the AHL with the Admirals. Instead, he opted to return to his native Finland and play in the KHL.
“We knew we wanted to follow up on what would happen [with his college situation],” Kurri said about the courting process. “We told [his camp] that we would be interested and, if he thought Jokerit would be a good choice, we’d be more than happy to discuss it.”
Discuss it they did and a contract was signed where the Vihti, Finland native would play for Jokerit in 2017-18 with a player option for the next season.
Playing among men in one of the best pro league’s in the world is certainly a way to show he’s ready for prime time.
“He scored three goals in his first game, so I think he showed everybody that he’s able to play in this league,” Pihlstrom said. “I think he might even improve when he gets used to traveling to all the other [cities].”
Does Kurri think Tolvanen has the tools to be a bonafide NHL player?
“Oh, no question,” he said without hesitation. “I think he’ll get better and he’ll get good experience in these type of games. The KHL has very hard games night after night where he needs to get better and better. That will make him a better player in the future.”
The moral of the story is Nashville has an offensive weapon in their system for the first time since probably Alexander Radulov in 2004. But they got Radulov in the middle of the first round so, while hindsight may be 20/20, how in the world did Tolvanen fall to the Predators at number 30?
“I didn’t know on draft day and I’m still not sure,” Kealty admitted. “But I’m sure glad he did.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Mikko Taipale